Review: Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965)

Doomed Man is the eleventh Zatoichi film in the four short years since the series’ inception.  As I see more and more of the series, I’ve come to realize that it’s a cross between a TV series and a Hollywood film series with the budget right in the middle of the two.  The closest comparison in today’s media-glutted America is to a cable series like True Blood.

Doomed Man isn’t the best or the worst of the series.  It’s a serviceable entry with a decent enough story about a man who asks Ichi to help him clear his name so he won’t be executed.  For the first time in the series, Ichi, who has plenty of his own troubles, decides not to help but ends up in the thick of the conflict anyway.  A powerful oyabun has set up the titular doomed man in order to save his own skin and Ichi just can’t let it go.

I’ve yet to figure out how these productions worked.  A TV series generally uses the same crew from week to week with different directors.  This allows the directors to overlap one another’s work in pre and post production while keeping the wheels turning on set.  This means that the show runner, usually a producer/writer, really has the reigns and the show directors are basically project managers.  But I’m not sure who was really in charge of the Zatoichi films.  Unlike television, each director can put his own visual stamp on things but the stories are consistent.

In this case, director Kazuo Mori does a serviceable job but offers very little that is new or exciting.  There’s a lot of wasted screen time early on where we’re treated to lengthy shots of Ichi walking in that crouch-walk he does.  For a film that’s less than 80 minutes long, there isn’t much economy.  The best scene is the final battle wherein Ichi slays dozens of men in a fog-shrouded town by the sea.

Shintaro Katsu is as good as ever in the title role.  Even when given very little to do, he exudes charm.  I doubt the series would have made it beyond the first couple of films without his involvement.  His swordplay is impressive as well.  I can’t figure out how some of the stunts were done without seriously hurting someone.  Katsu appears to be going full out and, even though there’s no blood, he convincingly eviscerates an army in this movie.

The screenwriters (too many are credited for this to have ended well)  attempt to give Ichi a sidekick but that ultimately fails to coalesce into anything interesting.  The sidekick is essentially used as comic relief and abandoned altogether when he’s no longer convenient to the plot.  The story isn’t nearly as engaging as it could have been because the man on death row is hardly ever seen.  We’re never given much of a reason to care whether he lives or dies.  I can see why Ichi wanted to pass this one up.

What really killed this one for me was the music.  We’re forced to endure a film score that is a blatant attempt to imitate Hollywood features of the era.  It’s overly dramatic with huge swells and “clever” hints at Japanese scales.  On the whole it comes off as trite and condescending, like the music used for Holly Golightly’s upstairs neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  It also doesn’t help that the soundtrack is distorted beyond recognition.

The credits indicate, as in many of these features, that the sound was by Westrex.  I can’t tell if it’s the original recording or the transfer that’s at fault, but I’ve never heard such bad music reproduction in my life.  I’ve heard hand-cranked 78 RPM platters that sounded better.  The picture fares better, but just barely.  This is another in the line of HVE video releases of Zatoichi films and the transfer wasn’t given any love at all.

Doomed Man is pretty mediocre for Zatoichi films in the early sixties.  it’s worth a watch for the arrow-shooting scene and the final battle, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone but hardcore fans.

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